Germans and Israel: 60 Years of a Neurotic Obsession

In 2003 the European Commission sponsored an opinion poll whose results imply that Israel must be some sort of superpower -- at any rate, in the eyes of German television viewers.

Germans are incessantly preoccupied by the small Mediterranean country. But the activities of a few ostentatious and kitschy "philosemites" like Lea Rosh, one of the principal promoters of Berlin's gigantic Holocaust Memorial, have evidently not had the desired effect. There has long existed in Germany a sort of parallel world of uplifting speeches about Israel, on the one hand -- and then, on the other hand, there is this: the poll in question showed that some 65% of Germans feel themselves threatened by Israel. (Another 45% feel threatened by the USA.)

How can that be? Threatened by such a small country with only six million inhabitants: about the size of the German state of Hesse?

The German satirist Wiglaf Droste once rightly said that by "freedom of speech" many Germans understand finally being allowed to say something negative about Jews and Israel again. And thus in the German context the real subject of many stories relating to Israel is just how one can go about doing this.

Germans are obsessed with the issue. Even a master thinker like the political commentator Heribert Prantl of Germany's bestselling broadsheet, Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, cannot let go of the subject. In 2006, during the Israel-Hezbollah war, Prantl showed how it can be done: namely, by asserting that one cannot say anything against Israel -- in order then to do so at great length.

"Bombs falling on Beirut, war in the Gaza Strip, a hundred thousand refugees. What criticism of Israel and how much criticism is permitted in Germany these days?"

Of course, all criticism is permitted. It is only that people like Prantl are always holding themselves back (happily), in order then at some point to out themselves as heroic rebels fighting against their authentic selves and to declare their own inner struggle as universal.

Prantl forms part of a long tradition of German reflection on Israel, which once upon a time started out in a quite different vein. But no matter what the tenor was, Israel was always the object of all sorts of projections. When Germans talk about Israel, they are always only talking about themselves.

Until well into the 1960s, Israel had an ecstatically positive image in West Germany: it was the land of pioneers and Kibbutzim. Germans -- the original fans of cooperative arrangements -- found this appealing.

The military played a particular role in this fascination. With their own curious army (as one common joke among the ranks put it: "The Bundeswehr exists in order to hold off the enemy until a real army comes"), Germans felt themselves curiously attracted by the heroic deeds of precisely a real army: namely, the Israeli army.

In 1967, the German weekly Der Spiegel wrote enthusiastically about "Israel's Blitzkrieg": "By virtue of an exemplary demonstration of iron-willed soldierly virtues -- for Germans always the most impressive of all qualities -- they captured the hearts of the very nation in whose name all Jews were supposed once to be exterminated. In contrast to the German master race, Jews of all people -- whom German Nazis regarded as cowardly, lazy, and decadent -- won a war for the third time against an overwhelmingly superior force."

This view was in fact widespread back then in a Germany where the "economic miracle" was losing steam and that projected its own military fantasies on the mini-state on the Mediterranean.

The same sort of projection exists still today. Thus in a recent interview with the German edition of Vanity Fair, Ulrich K. Wegener, a former commander of Germany's GSG-9 anti-terror unit, claims that the Israeli Army studied and adopted the guerrilla tactics of the Wehrmacht's "Brandenburg" special unit -- a fact that was supposed indeed to speak for the quality of the Nazi paramilitary formation.

(Implicit in similar remarks made by more malicious spirits than Wegener is the idea that Nazis and Israelis are hardly distinguishable and that the Palestinians are the "Jews of the Jews" -- as it used to be put in left-wing terrorist circles in the 1970s.)

The enthusiasm for Israel (which was also apparent in the popularity of Israeli artists like Abi and Esther Ofraim or Daliah Lavi) reached a high point in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the same time, however, a new tone began to be heard. First emerging on the far left, it has come in the meanwhile to express the repressed, but quietly festering sentiment of many Germans.

The sympathy for the Kibbutz-nation was driven out by a sort of new version of the ideal of the "noble savage" as embodied in the oppressed Palestinians (and later too Latinos and Kurds).

The Palestinian scarf became fashionable. Already in the sixties, the "alternative scene" leftist, Dieter Kunzelmann, suggested that Germans had to get over their "tick about the Jews." He and his comrades thought they could do this, for instance, by putting a bomb in the Jewish community center in West Berlin.

Of course, the majority of Germans are not so radical. But they are, nonetheless, preoccupied by this "tick about the Jews" -- of which they themselves show symptoms and whose treatment they obviously consider to be urgent.

A German neurosis. A neurosis that consists, for instance, in the fact that in Germany no country is criticized so harshly as Israel -- and then at the same time Germans complain that "one is not allowed to say anything negative about Israel."

A neurosis that consists in the fact that Heribert Prantl of Die Süddeutsche Zeitung can set off some of the classic pyrotechnics from the anti-Semitic arsenal -- so long as they are just slightly repackaged as anti-Israeli rather than anti-Semitic. For example, the standard charge that Jews are responsible for creating their own enemies. One does not need to draw on any negative anti-Semitic "associations," Prantl claims, "in order to criticize Israel's aggression against Lebanon, which will prove to be a help to Hezbollah's recruitment efforts. One may, indeed one must deplore the fact that Israel is rearing its own enemies and helping to make a murderous conflict eternal."

Israel's aggression? In fact it was the other way around: Israel was attacked. But no: Israel has, of course, to be held responsible.

Prantl continues: "In combating Islamist fanaticism, Israel's self-fanaticization is no help. The right to self-defense cannot lead to international norms, like that of the protection of the civilian population, being suspended."

"Israel's self-fanaticization"? One needs to savor this defamatory coinage by Die Süddeutsche Zeitung's amateur psychologist.

Needless to say, Prantl's remarks were met with applause at the time. In fact, not just applause -- rapturous applause.

This is probably of no concern to Israelis. They are used to it. Unlike Germans, who spend the whole day thinking about Israel, Israelis do not spend the whole day thinking about Germany.

It is similar with Americans, who could not care less about Germany and are more likely to show interest in Asia than in messed-up Europe.

Israelis would rather spend their time developing software and conducting research on biotechnologies, an area in which the country is among the world leaders.

And here in Germany, we will spend another 60 years obsessing over the question: "What may -- no -- what must we be permitted to say against Israel?"

Well, have fun with your ruminations -- but I want nothing to do with them.

Happy Birthday Israel!

The above article first appeared in German on the author's Vanity Fair blog here. The English translation is by John Rosenthal.

CORRECTION: The article intially stated that Brandeburg was a SS unit; it was a Wehrmacht special unit.